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‘A few of the gods’: Irish Plays and Irish Audiences in North East Theatres, 1860-1914. 

Under the headline ‘Fenian Outrage in Manchester. A Policeman Murdered’,[1] the Newcastle Journal reported the shooting dead of Police Sergeant Charles Brett during the rescue of two Fenian prisoners in Manchester on 18 September 1867.[2] In spite, however, of countrywide ‘sightings’ of Colonel Thomas Kelly, police searches, and mass arrests, the fugitives eluded re-capture.

In Durham City, ‘a military-looking Irishman bearing a strong likeness to Colonel Kelly’ was arrested in the Market Place, but was released after ‘an examination of his mouth proved that he had not lost any of his teeth – so prominent a mark on the man he was taken for’.[3] Meanwhile, soldiers from the 22nd Regiment then based in Newcastle were sent by train to Manchester ‘to assist in preserving the peace in the town during the disturbed state of society… owing to the recent outrages of the Fenians’.[4]

In contrast, the North East of England appeared free of Fenian unrest, though it was reported that Sunderland’s town council had been warned of Irish meetings in the town ‘rejoicing over the policeman being shot in Manchester’.[5] And, a few months previously, a Fenian fugitive from County Meath, Edward McDonald, had been arrested at the home of his uncle in Newcastle’s Clayton Street by an Irish Constabulary sergeant, and taken back to Ireland for trial.[6]

Five days after the shooting in Manchester, a new theatre opened on Newcastle’s Westgate Road – the Tyne Theatre and Opera House, commissioned by the industrialist and Radical politician Joseph Cowen, who was to succeed his father as one of Newcastle’s MPs in 1874. During the 1860s, Cowen, through his Newcastle Chronicle stable of newspapers, ‘protested that the Irish were sorely provoked’, and demanded that the government practised reform rather than repression in Ireland.[7] Cowen, however, was no advocate of rebellion in Ireland,[8] so it is surprising, therefore, that the play chosen for the theatre’s opening night on Monday 23 September was Arrah-na-Pogue [Arrah of the kiss].

This melodrama by the Irish playwright, Dion Boucicault,[9] had never before been seen on Tyneside, though first performed in Dublin in 1856 and had run to 300 performances in London in 1865.[10] Set in Wicklow during the 1798 Rebellion, the play featured the subversive song ‘The Wearing of the Green’ with its emotive refrain ‘They are hanging men and women for the wearing of the green’.

Arrah-na-Pogue was not, however, the first play performed in Newcastle in 1867 to be set against rebellion in Ireland, and, once again, it was the 1798 Rebellion rather than the chaotic and ill-prepared contemporary events in the country that provided the play’s background. In March, the Theatre Royal announced a new ‘sensational drama’ to be set in 1798.[11] Written by its actor-manager, Sydney Davis, Achora Machree [Darling of my heart],[12] based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s ballad Shamus O’Brien,[13]opened on 13 May and was described by the theatrical newspaper, The Era, as being a ‘complete success’ in providing ‘a true picture of life in Ireland’.[14]

These and other similar Irish-themed plays at the time, for example Boucicault’s Colleen Bawn [The fair-haired girl],[15] presented audiences with a mix of farce and melodrama that usually featured a ‘stage Hibernian’, who, according to the Chronicle’s reviewer of Achora Machree, was ‘too well known to need any description here’.[16]

Whilst Tyneside English audiences might have roared with laughter at the antics of the ‘rollicking Irishman’,[17] some others in the audience clearly found a contemporary relevance in the plays. Ten days after the Manchester shooting, an anonymous letter to the editor of the Newcastle Journal complained.[18]

‘There is a blot upon the performance of the beautiful drama Arrah-na-Pogue… I allude to the song ‘The wearing of the Green’, the Fenian sentiments of which are so ably warbled by Mr Sullivan. Surely this gentleman’s repertoire includes something more loyal… By a few of the gods the song is well received, but after the events of the last few days, to enlist Fenian sympathies is not exactly the way “to hold the mirror to nature”’.

From the 1870s, the North East’s ‘few of the gods’ were well served by two touring companies performing far more overtly nationalist plays. The first of these was Auguste Creamer and his ‘Irish Comedy Drama Company’, who played in June 1875 in North Shields, Bishop Auckland, Darlington, Middlesbrough and Consett, performing what were billed as ‘truly National Dramas’ – Rathmore, Robert Emmet, ’98, Colleen Bawn, The Wearing of the Green, Blarney, and Erin go Bragh.[19]

Hubert O’Grady led the other company and his first tour of the North East began in the Gaiety Theatre in West Hartlepool in March 1877 with The Shaughraun [The Wanderer].[20] This had been written in 1874 by Dion Boucicault and was firmly set during the Fenian Rising of 1867, with a Fenian as hero, and ending with the hero pardoned as part of a general amnesty.[21] Boucicault had intended his play to influence his English audiences in favour of a Fenian amnesty,[22] but his Irish audiences, with their knowledge from the nationalist press of the executions, imprisonment and transportation of Fenian prisoners, would have needed no such persuasion.

Both Creamer and O’Grady were openly supportive of Irish nationalism. So, for example, after playing in Durham’s Albany Theatre, Creamer offered the local branch of the Irish National League of Great Britain half the takings in support of the families of the three men shot dead by police in Mitchelstown, County Cork;[23] whilst O’Grady performed in Liverpool for an audience of newly-released political prisoners and caught the attention of Special Branch.[24]

This upsurge in nationalist plays was assisted by the increasing number of small-town theatrical venues in the North East. So, for example, Langley Moor, a pit village south-west of Durham City, boasted by 1877 the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties, two years before the village’s Irish Catholic miners had their combined church and school.[25] On 14 April that year, a notice in the nationalist press called ‘TO THE IRISHMEN OF CO. DURHAM’ to support Auguste Creamer, billed as ‘THE ONLY REAL IRISH MANAGER IN BRITAIN’, when his Company played for six nights at the Alhambra, performing The Shaughraun, The Wearing of the Green and Robert Emmet.[26]

In the late 1870s, agricultural depression in Ireland saw thousands of tenant farmers, unable to pay their rents, evicted from their homes by landlords protected by armed Crown forces. In response, the Irish National Land League was formed in October 1879 to support the tenants, and branches of the Land League quickly spread to the North East of England, as across the rest of the country, fuelled by Irish and English working-class anger.

In December 1880, the Theatre Royal in West Hartlepool presented The Eviction written the previous year by Hubert O’Grady, and starring the author and his wife.[27] This ‘powerful drama’ was, a reviewer declared, ‘illustrative of the manner in which poor tenant-farmers and labourers of Ireland are dealt with by cruel landlords’.

O’Grady’s company toured to other theatres in the region, though newspaper reviews of the play and descriptions of the audiences’ reactions are rare.[28] However, in August 1883, after Sunderland’s Avenue Theatre presented The Eviction, a reviewer for the Echo noted how the play ‘written in a strongly partisan vein… illustrating some of the worst features of landlord rule in Ireland’ was well-received by the ‘large audience’.[29] And added that ‘the familiarity of the public with the frequent evictions which occurred in Ireland a short time ago naturally invests a drama of this character with a special degree of popular interest’.

O’Grady was back in Sunderland in late 1885 with The Eviction,[30] and in March 1887, coinciding with the St Patrick’s Day celebrations, O’Grady and his ‘Irish National Company’ played for six nights at the Avenue Theatre with his new play The Famine.[31]

O’Grady’s plays, though ‘as predictable in their plots as in their characterisation’, did provide audiences with ‘a winning commercial formula of nostalgia, sentiment and political message’,[32] and The Famine was no exception. Written in 1876, against a background of renewed mass evictions, The Famine, bristling ‘with allusions to current topics’ and with sentiments ‘of a distinctly Nationalist complexion’, clearly resonated with the Sunderland Irish.[33] And a tableau at the end of one scene especially excited interest. This was ‘a realistic and exciting attack on a police van’, which deliberately echoed the Fenian attack in Manchester in 1867. How many in the audience seeing that tableau had attended mass for the ‘Manchester Martyrs’ the previous November, and, possibly, every year since the executions of Allen, Larkin and O’Brien?[34]

In 1890, O’Grady’s newest play, The Fenian, toured the North East. Set during the 1867 Rising, a key scene featured Fenians drilling in ‘full uniform’, as the orchestra played the Fenian anthem ‘God Save Ireland’.[35] After a well-attended performance in the Theatre Royal, North Shields, the Gazette’s reviewer wrote:[36]

‘The old traits of character common to the Irish drama, and so familiar to all playgoers, are preserved… the incidents in the play are considerably overdrawn, but they are apparently none the less welcome from that fact, judging from the enthusiasm and excitement which last evening’s performance roused among the audience.’

From the 1890s to 1914, openly Irish nationalist plays continued to be performed in theatres across the North East, with the ever-popular titles joined by newer works, for example Fred Jarman’s The Rebel’s Wife – ‘a tale of the Irish rebellion of 1798’.[37] And amateurs also took to the stage with players from Newcastle’s Irish Literary Institute performing in Jarrow’s Royal Albert Hall ‘The Shaughraun’ to a ‘large and highly appreciative audience’, in an event organised by the town’s ‘Wolfe Tone’ branch of the United Irish League.[38]

By 1914, the most popular Irish plays were being shown as films in theatres and purpose-built cinemas across the North East, and, though silent, these films had the advantage of being filmed on location in Ireland. In 1911, an adapted version of Boucicault’s Arrah-na-Pogue was filmed in Killarney. Premiered in New York, by February 1912, the film was being shown twice nightly at Hartlepool’s Royal Electric Theatre, as advertised in the town’s Northern Daily Mail, which claimed that the film was ‘applauded to the echo’ by the audience.[39]

Without evidence, other than for the occasional comments of newspaper reviewers (most of whom were probably English rather than Irish), it is not possible to judge what effect, if any, these plays, and later films, had on the North East’s Irish before 1914. However, the fact that the region’s theatre and cinema managers repeatedly booked these Irish plays and films proves that they were popular.[40] But, as well as providing welcome relief from the hard labour of collieries and iron works, did these plays also reinforce the North East’s Irish sense of identity; remind them of the country they had left; and, perhaps, strengthen their support for Irish nationalism?


[1] Newcastle Daily Journal, 20 September 1867.

[2] See Paul Rose, The Manchester Martyrs: the story of a Fenian Tragedy (London, 1970).

[3] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 26 September 1867.

[4] Shields Daily Gazette, 26 September 1867.

[5] Glasgow Free Press, 28 September 1867.

[6] Newcastle Daily Journal, 16 May 1867.

[7] Joan Allen, Joseph Cowen and Popular Radicalism on Tyneside, 1829-1900 (Monmouth, 2007), p.86.

[8] Ibid. p.86.

[9] https://www.dib.ie/biography/Boucicault-dion-lardner-a0794

[10] Newcastle Daily Journal, 28 September 1867.

[11] Newcastle Daily Journal, 25 March 1861.

[12] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 14 May 1867.

[13] https://swanriverpress.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/poetry-day-ireland-le-fanus-shamus-obrien-1850/

[14] The Era, 19 May 1867.

[15] Theatre Royal, Sunderland, 1861. Newcastle Chronicle & Northern Counties Advertiser, 30 January 1861.

[16] Newcastle Daily Chronicle, 14 May 1867.

[17] The Era, 19 May 1867.

[18] Newcastle Daily Journal, 28 September 1867.

[19] The Irishman, 12 June 1875.

[20] The Irishman, 14 April 1877.

[21] North British Daily Mail, 10 January 1876.

[22] John Belchem, Irish, Catholic and Scouse. The History of the Liverpool-Irish, 1800-1939 (Liverpool, 2007), p.231.

[23] United Ireland, 5 November 1887.

[24] John Denvir, The Life Story of Old Rebel (Dublin, 1910, reprinted Shannon, 1972), p.265; Belchem, Irish, Catholic and Scouse, p.237.

[25] Michael Morris and Leo Gooch, Down Your Aisles, The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, 1850-2000 (Hartlepool, 2000), p.175.

[26] The Irishman, 14 April 1877.

[27] Northern Evening Mail, 15 December 1880.

[28] See South Shields Daily Gazette, 22 March 1881 & 12 June 1882.

[29] Sunderland Daily Echo, 28 August 1883.

[30] Sunderland Daily Echo, 13 October 1885.

[31] Sunderland Daily Echo, 15 March 1887. The play opened on Monday 14 March and ran for six nights.

[32] Belchem, Irish, Catholic and Scouse, p.238.

[33] Sunderland Daily Echo, 15 March 1887.

[34] United Ireland, 27 November 1886. Masses were said every November in churches across the North East of England following the executions on 23 November 1867. See Chris Morash, A History of Irish Theatre 1601-2000 (Cambridge, 2002), p.112.

[35] South Shields Daily Gazette, 10 May 1889.

[36] South Shields Daily Gazette, 7 October 1890.

[37] Northern Echo, 29 August 1899.

[38] South Shields Daily Gazette, 31 March 1903.

[39] Northern Daily Mail, 27 February 1912.

[40] In March 1914, the films Colleen Bawn and Arrah-na-Pogue were being shown at two venues in Sunderland. Sunderland Daily Echo, 17 March 1914.

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